Flood (1985), pp. 232 ff.
by Andrew Vachss
As I stopped at a light I saw a working girl sitting on one of the concrete bases that anchor the steel I–beams that hold up the highway. She had short reddish hair, a hard thirtyish face, dark lipstick, a quarter–inch of face powder.
A rust–colored sweater bulged out over huge tightly cinched breasts, the ensemble finished off with a thick leather belt, faded jeans, black leather boots almost to the knee. She was smoking a cigarette, blowing the smoke toward the river—waiting. Her partner, a skinny black girl wearing a turquoise knit dress and apparently nothing else, was standing by, hands on hips. The black hooker was anxious to get working, jawing with every car that stopped, but the big woman sat like she was part of the concrete.
I pulled up and rolled down the window, giving the big pross a look at my face. She asked, "Want to buy some pussy?" in a half–asleep voice like she didn't give a damn one way or the other while the black girl ran her tongue around her lips.
"Twenty–five for the pussy, ten for the room."
"Hey, I want to rent it, not buy it," I told her, and the black girl giggled.
"I just want to talk to you," I told the white woman.
She looked at me. "No sale, pal. I'm self–employed."
"Do I look like a pimp to you?"
"You don't look like nothing to me," earning another giggle from her pal.
"You want to talk about it?"
"For twenty–five bucks in your car, thirty–five in the room," she said in the same monotone.
"Deal," I said, opening the door for her. She slowly pulled herself off the concrete cushion and walked over to the Plymouth. She was about six feet tall, had to weigh 170 pounds.
As soon as she stood up I knew who she was.
I drove down by one of the abandoned piers, killed the engine, and turned to look at her. She said, "The twenty–five, man," and I reached in my pocket while she fumbled in her purse, and I had my gun out before she came up with hers.
"Take your hand out of your pocketbook, okay? Nice and slow. Nobody's going to hurt you."
A resigned light flashed in her eyes for a split–second, but she didn't move. I cocked the pistol—the sound was harsh in the closed car. She took her hand out of her pocketbook, threw one massive thigh over the other, and put her folded hands on her knees where I could see them.
"You're not a cop, right?"
"So you want this one on the house . . . or is this payback?"
"It's neither one, JoJo. Just be cool. Give me the purse."
"There's no money in it."
"I know what's in it."
She tossed the purse at me, right at my face. I didn't move—my gun didn't move. The purse slapped against my face and fell into my lap. I snapped it open and found the tiny .25–caliber automatic—I put her piece in my pocket and tossed her purse into the backseat.
"Not much of a gun, JoJo."
"I don't need much."
"You want to know what this is all about?"
"I figure I already know. Some sucker sent you, right? You don't figure to blast me right here, and you don't look tough enough to whip my ass, so I figure it's got to be about money."
"It's about money all right, but money for you, not from you. I want you to do some work for me."
"Twenty–five for the pussy, ten for the room."
"Cut the shit, JoJo. I know you run a one–woman badger game, okay? I'm not going to any room with you. I want to buy something and I'm willing to pay."
"You know about me?"
"Then you're around the wrong people."
"And you live in the suburbs, right?"
"I'm listening," she said.
"I'm looking for a guy, okay? I've got his picture, got his description. You turn him up, I pay you a grand in cash. That's it."
"How much up front?"
"What do I look like, a fucking commuter? I'm not asking you to go out of your way—just do your work. You happen to see him, you make a call, you get your money."
"I can get the same deal from the federales."
"Bullshit. Don't be so cool—there's no way you're talking to the Man. I'll front you a quarter for the phone call, that's it."
"And if I don't?"
"You can haul your gigantic ass out of here and back under the highway."
JoJo sat there like she was thinking it over—like she had all the time in the world. She said, "Got a smoke?" and I nodded towards my shirt pocket. She reached one hand toward the pocket, bringing her face close to mine. There was nobody home behind her eyes. I brought the gun closer to her face.
JoJo plucked a cigarette from the loose pack and stuck it in her mouth. She patted herself like she was looking for matches, then let her left hand trail down my chest to my crotch and groped around, squeezed—the gun stayed on her face. JoJo took her hand away, leaned back against the seat cushion, fired the wooden match against the sole of her boot. "At least you don't get a hard–on behind sticking a gun in my face."
"I'm here on business, okay?"
JoJo took a deep drag of the cigarette. Her sweater looked like it was going to burst a few threads and I could see the outline of the wire–support bra—she must have been the only whore in the city who wore one.
"Show me the picture," she said. I watched her face for a clue to her mind and gave it up. I took the Xerox of the mug shot out and handed it to her.
JoJo studied the picture intently. Her eyes narrowed. "That motherfucker, it's him! I find this cocksucker and he's dead. On the house. I don't need your fucking quarter. It's him..."
"Hey," I said, to snap her out of it.
JoJo swiveled in her seat to look at me. Her face was dead–white under the makeup, red blotches mottled her cheeks—her eyes were crazy. I spoke softly, gently. "Listen, it's okay. It's okay, JoJo. I want him too, all right? I know he's a bad guy. It's okay—there's lot of people wanting him now. Relax ... just relax."
I patted her rock–hard shoulder, stroked it—but I never moved the gun from her face. JoJo finally took a deep breath, handing me back the picture.
"I don't need this—I'd know that cocksucker anywhere. I don't need you to tell me what to do. If you want him, you got him dead."
"Look, I just want you to—"
But she went on like I hadn't spoken. "And if you're one of his freak friends, if this is a test, tell him I'll always remember, okay? He's dead. You don't like it you can just fucking blast away right now."
"JoJo . . . JoJo, listen, babe. I'm not his friend—I don't even know him, okay? And I do want him. Just call me when you—"
"No calls. I see him, he's dead."
"You want the grand?"
"Not if I have to let him live."
"I'll pay you a grand for his head, okay, JoJo? When you finish with him, just take off his head, okay? And call me. When I see his head, I'll pay you the money."
And JoJo smiled like a little girl with a new doll. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. Okay, we got a deal?"
"We got a deal, pal," said JoJo, and slid over to open her door, leaving the Cobra's picture and her purse in the car. As she was walking around the back to my side, I grabbed the .25 and popped the clip, jacked the shell out of the chamber, then worked the clip until I was holding a handful of bullets.
When she came up to the window I gave her back the purse with everything inside. JoJo leaned in the window, shaking her rump for new customers like she was saying good–bye to an old one. She gave me a wink with one droopy eyelid, and I had the Plymouth in gear and moving even as she was turning away.
I got to the highway before she did and turned downtown, feeling the chills in the back of my neck like the time I had malaria. I put my gun back where it belonged, kneading my left forearm with my right hand to restore the circulation. I had been holding the piece like it was a lifeline—with JoJo so close to me, I guess it had been.
After a few blocks, I felt a stabbing pain in my chest and realized I hadn't drawn a breath for too long. I got my breathing under control, checked my hands for the shakes—I had them, all right—and started to look for Michelle.
I drew A total blank for a while—then I spotted Michelle working the other side of the highway. I hooked the Plymouth into a rolling U–turn and watched her face as I wheeled up alongside her. As soon as she saw it was me she started to run to the car. I pushed the passenger door open and she was in and we were moving again.
"What's on, honey—somebody chasing you?" she asked.
"I got to talk to you. Not around here."
"I know a spot," she said, and directed me down by the Municipal Building—she sent us east like we were headed for the drive but told me to pull up short near Pearl Street. It was a big construction site with no workers around. No police patrols either, but lots of citizen activity a few blocks away. Safe and quiet.
I rolled down my window, offered a smoke to Michelle, who declined in favor of her own brand. She smokes these long skinny things with pink paper and black filter tips she gets from Nat Sherman's. I tried one once when I ran out of my own—they don't taste bad.
"You know JoJo?" I asked her.
"Everybody knows JoJo, baby. Why?"
"I'm still looking for that maggot, right? The Cobra?"
"So you went to JoJo? Are you completely bonkers?"
"Maybe I am. I know she's a rough–off artist. I never met her before today but I know her rep. I thought I'd run the thing by her, tell her about the bounty and—"
"A grand cash, no questions asked, no testimony needed."
"And you told JoJo?"
"Yeah. How could I know she'd go into the fucking Twilight Zone on me?"
"Burke, you didn't show her a picture, did you? Or an artist's sketch?"
"Yeah, I did. How did you know?"
"And then she just went off, right?"
"I said yeah. What's the story?"
"Sweetheart, I thought you knew about JoJo. Sometimes I don't see how you can do your work, ignorant as you are. JoJo used to be a sweet young thing. One of those country broads—got tired of the farm and turned tricks back home down in Cornballsville. So she comes up here to make money in the big city, right? And where do you think she decides to set up shop? Delancey and the Bowery, if you can believe it. And she's out there without a daddy, thinking those double–sawbuck tricks are major dollars, you know? Now there's nothing down here but experienced black ladies, honey, plus a few little white–bread runaways that the pimps are afraid to let work near the Port Authority because there's warrants out on them, and all.
"And the working girls don't tell her nothing about the Life, you know—they just try and pull her into one of their old man's stables. But JoJo's not going for that—she's going to do a solo act. So one night this freakmobile shows up on the corner—two punks in front, another pair in the back. Ain't no working girl with any smarts getting in that car—but the other bitches play like it's no big deal and old dumb JoJo goes for it and they take her away to some room one of them had and they keep her there for three whole days—tie her up and fuck her and do a bullwhip number on her and make her spread for some Polaroids—they just go the whole freako hog. And after they pull a couple of trains on her they send out for pizza and let the delivery man have a shot. They call up all their friends and invite them too. And when they're finally going to leave, JoJo's a bloody mess and she ups and asks them for the money. Can you believe that? Well, one of them just goes nuts behind that and he takes a baseball bat to her and when the cops find her half her skull is caved in.
"They take her to the hospital and put a steel plate in her head and get her patched up and then some detective comes in with one of those mugshot books and shows them to her and she starts screaming, "That's them," and points to all of them and jumps right out of the bed and they have to knock her out with the needles . . . JoJo ends up in the looney ward for a year or two until she learns how to play the game and they spring her. Now she just gets even—every day, every way. Baby, you show her anything that even looks like a mug shot and it's Psycho City."
"Yeah, yeah, I saw that for myself. She doesn't recognize any of the pictures?"
"JoJo doesn't recognize anything period. She runs a fifty–fifty blend of hate and crazy. I can't even tell you some of the things she's done to johns. You go into a hotel room with JoJo and you're not walking out under your own power."
"I think she's not waiting for hotel rooms anymore, Michelle—she's packing. I think she would've blown me away right in the car if she'd had the chance."
"It's so sad. I talk to her sometimes, Burke, but I can't help her. Those freaks put her on another planet, what they did to her."
© 1985 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from the novel Flood by Andrew Vachss.